Showering, washing, cleaning—without surfactants all these activities would be a drag. That’s because surfactants are amphiphilic: they “like” both oil and water. That’s why they’re able to remove dirt and grime, provide bubbles and foam for bathtime fun. A biosurfactant developed by researchers in the Nutrition & Care Segment is ready for the market and will be the first to fully meet all requirements for this kind of product—without compromise.
It cleans well, is unaffected by water hardness, is gentle to the skin, can be produced entirely from renewable resources—with no need for tropical oils—and is biodegradable and safe for aquatic organisms.
Surfactants are the substances that—due to their special molecular structure—give laundry detergents, shower gels, shampoos, and dish soaps their cleaning power. Along with water, they constitute the most important components of these products, and are the bedrock of daily cleaning and hygiene.
Even though biodegradable surfactants that are tolerated by the skin and made from renewable resources have been available for some time, they still have considerable room for improvement: The right balance between cleaning power and skin tolerance is still a compromise, and tropical oils remain an indispensable raw material.
This is where biosurfactants come into play. Produced naturally by microorganisms, these surfactants combine performance, skin gentleness, and biodegradability to an unprecedented degree, and in addition they are based entirely on renewable resources— with no need for tropical oils. Sophorolipids have already been known to researchers for decades, but only now can be produced on an industrial scale. This special type of biosurfactant from the family of glycolipids is produced by yeasts which occur naturally in the honey made by bumblebees.
Ecover, a Belgian detergent and cleanser manufacturer, has launched its first products containing sophorolipids from Evonik, and these are now on supermarket shelves. Because the requirements for biosurfactants vary from one application to the next, Evonik is looking to molecules other than sophorolipids that it can develop for use in cleansers and personal care products using biotech production processes. Researchers are also working on a second class of interesting products known as rhamnolipids—another glycolipid that, in addition to its mildness and environmental compatibility, is known largely for its powerful foam-forming effects.
Consumers perceive foam as a sign of cleaning power in detergents and cleansers—a factor even more important than its impact on the actual cleansing effects of the product. Long-lasting suds signal thorough cleaning, especially in emerging markets, where a good deal of laundry is still washed by hand, even as standards of hygiene are increasing. The same applies to shampoos and shower gels, where a creamy lather is seen as a sign of gentle care.